‘Free’ and ‘altruism’ are words that generally have a positive ring to them. But it’s clear that social media behemoth Facebook’s Free Basics programme, which it pitches as an altruistic endeavour to provide the have-nots a bridge to the Internet for free, fails to evoke such a feel. Not without reason, though. For starters, as critics have repeatedly pointed out, there is a huge difference between being a gateway to the Internet and being a gatekeeper to the Internet, and Free Basics worryingly has all the makings of the latter. So, it does have the potential to trap subscribers in the metaphorical “walled garden”, what with the immensely popular Facebook thrown into the free mix of offerings. That the whole package is offered free hardly surprises anyone with even a little knowledge of how business models in the digital world work. Free, by the way, is a business model that delivers returns in an unconventional way. There might be many variations of it but basically it is about accumulating millions and millions of new users by offering products free, in the hope that the build-up could be milked for revenue in the years to come. That’s the same tactic many start-ups use to show “traction” while pitching to big moneyed venture capitalists.
And where do you find an unrestricted Internet economy with millions yet untapped? Yes, India. There can be very little doubt that the haves-have-nots digital divide in India is stark, and needs to be bridged as soon as possible. Credit is due to Facebook for identifying this need and bringing a sense of urgency to addressing it. Credit is also due for the way its young founder Mark Zuckerberg has fought doggedly for the idea’s acceptance. It is close to a year now since he launched Internet.org, the earlier avatar of Free Basics, in India. And during this period, there has never been a dull moment in the exchanges between the critics of Free Basics and Facebook. As it stands, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, the regulator, has asked Facebook’s Free Basics partner in India, Reliance Communications, to put the service on hold. The social media giant, showing little sign of backing off, has done all that it can (tweaked its dimensions, launched a comprehensive advertising campaign, and got its charismatic founder to pen articles) to get political and social acceptance to the idea. It’s both impressive and unsettling at the same time when one thinks about how a corporate, valued at over $300 billion, can spend so much money and effort on a controversial project that is not even avowedly a pure business venture. The problem has reached the doorsteps of policymakers. They have to not only decide the fate of services such as Free Basics but also find ways to deliver digital equality fast. For, Free Basics can’t be an excuse for the failures of the state in delivering universal access.